I grew up in the high desert of Albuquerque, NM. Our idea of water was the mucky, paltry Rio Grande. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 14 years old, but I had taken to the dirt quite well with hiking and mountain biking in my young adult life. The idea of surfing on the ocean was intimidating to me. I shuddered at how far away from shoreline you had to paddle to catch a wave. The idea of a hidden, massive foreign world underneath the exterior serenity of the ocean is intimidating. The powerful, indifferent waves can be as mellow as a warm, Caribbean evening or as furious as a killer tidal wave. How can you be in control on the ocean?
I’ve always loved the trail. The ground is solid underneath my feet or my tires. The rocks and roots are unforgiving, but normally predictable. Most of nature is audible and visual unlike the ocean. The mountain world has other creatures lurking in the bushes and in the trees, but at least they’re not under your feet and you might see them coming. If you get scared on a bike, you simply stop and step off the pedals. You can’t get stuck in a rip tide or current. It seems like it’d be harder to get in trouble compared to paddling out into the immense blue ocean.
I decided it was time to face my fears. Surfing looked like fun if I could get over my fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. How could I expect beginners to throw a leg over a mountain bike if I wasn’t willing to try something that intimidated me? At the time, I was staying near Poipu Beach on Kauai and tracked down Kauai Surf School. Both myself and my 60 year old dad signed up to step foot on a surf board for the first time. I was inspired by the fact that my dad signed up too. You’re never too old to learn something new. I think having the curiosity and courage to learn is what keeps people young.
I had a feeling that surfing would share some similarities to mountain biking. We were entrusted to the care of Alan, our surf instructor. It was fun to be a beginner again. I felt the fear of uncertainty and it was wonderful humbling to try something unfamiliar and exotic. After learning how to stand on the board and practicing moving from laying on our bellies to standing, it was time to leave the security of the solid earth.
As I paddled out to the bunny hill of surfing, my heart was thumping wildly in my chest. Would it hurt if I fell? Would I hit my head on the surf board? It was strange not to be wearing a helmet. Would I be able to stand up? Would I get sucked out to sea? What if I sucked?
For our first few waves, Alan stood out there with us on a reef. He gave us a push and told us when to go. I looked back and saw my wave coming. I swallowed hard and tried to focus on the cues we learned on the beach as Alan started yelling over the roar of the approaching wave. It was chaotic, yet things seemed to move in slow motion. I went through the motions and was surprised as I stood up on my board and rode it to the beach! It was the same feeling of conquering a technical section or a hard climb on a bike. The satisfying feeling of “Holy crap! I DID IT!!” I instantly wanted to try again and paddled back out. My dad stood up on his second wave and rode it in hooting and hollering.
The real fun began when we had to catch our own waves, but it came naturally. The next day, I rented a board for 4 hours and went till I couldn’t paddle anymore.
I started thinking of the surfing cues and they were very similar to mountain biking.
- Look where you want to go and look ahead. I tested this when I looked down instead of up ahead and I fell in.
- Don’t force it. Feel the board underneath you and let it naturally carry you. On the bike? Trying to muscle your way and fighting the trail is much harder than letting it flow just like surfing.
- Commit to what you’re doing. If you’re going for the wave, really try to catch it or you’ll miss it. Singletrack? If you’re riding technical trail and don’t fully commit, chances are you’re going down!
The most surprising thing I didn’t expect was the falling. If you fall on a bike, it hurts! There are some bumps and bruises and occasionally some serious consequences. On the bunny waves, falling down was simply falling straight off the board into the water. It didn’t hurt at all! The waves weren’t so powerful that they held you under water and punished you. It’s a great beginner sport, but I’m guessing it’s more difficult as you progress.
After I playing for several hours and mastering the little waves, I started craving something bigger. I wasn’t catching the same adrenaline rush as before. I looked further out off the shore where people were surfing about a 20 minute paddle away. I was once again intimidated. I decided I’d be getting in over my head, literally, if I went out there alone to catch a bigger wave. It reminded me of technical riding. Once you master the small stuff, you want to try something bigger. It’s always easier when you have someone with you to show you the way. With surfing, I didn’t know what I should try and what I shouldn’t.
I can’t wait to get back to the ocean and seek out that bigger wave. I know the bigger waves will be more painful when I fall, but not like on a bike. However, fear of drowning is scary! I also couldn’t wait to get back on my bike to go dirt surfing!
Taking surfing lessons from Alan and Kauai Surf School was helpful for the mountain bike clinics that I teach. It was great to be the vulnerable, apprehensive student instead of the experienced teacher and to accept the challenge to step into a braver, unfamiliar role for the day. Breaking things down into tiny bit-sized pieces and getting positive reinforcement were the most helpful things. It is a great reminder to apply that to teaching mountain bike skills.
Next time you’re near water, check out surfing. It’s a great compliment to mountain biking! Maybe this winter I’ll leave the skis in the closet and get on a snowboard. Surfing on snow sounds pretty cool.